Saturday 10 August 2013

Help! Shipwrecked - 19

...continued from stories 16,17 and 18.
It was on the thirty-third night of being lost at sea in a 23-foot open Sampan boat bound for Singapore, that the stars of Life and Death fought for supremacy. We were four inexperienced young sailors, lost at sea and without food for the past eleven days.
Not the expected paradise - Photo by Ian Austin
     Our last landfall had been a disaster; we had unknowingly beached the boat at high tide and then gone ashore on an unsuccessful scavenge for food. When we returned the tide was out and the boat sat stranded high and dry.
     We waited for the next high tide but were unable to fully re-float her before the tide dropped again. It took a full, gut-wrenching and exhausting day of digging a channel and two further high tides before we were re-floated again. 
     Things were desperate; we were sunburnt and weak. Jim edged in and out of delirium, there appeared to be an unspoken rule not to refer to the negative side of our predicament, instead, conversation centred around recollections of the best meals ever eaten and what food each would like to eat as soon as we landed at Singapore.
     On this thirty-third night, Eric and I, as was usual, shared the dawn watch from 1 a.m. to 7 a.m. It had started off uneventfully, the weather was clear, warm and fine, a relaxed breeze blew from the north-east and we had been steering our usual night-time course of due south, at what we hoped was perhaps ten miles off the coast of Thailand, or if we were lucky, perhaps Malaya.
Land but no habitation - photo Ian R Austin
     Although we were both weak from lack of food, there was no excuse for what happened; we had both – on that particular night – fallen asleep on the tiller.
     I was the first to wake, it was daybreak and I could hear the frightening sound of crashing surf; it was coming from a reef ahead and to the right of us, beyond which a landmass.
     Did I say, to the right of us? With land behind it?
     My God! We must be heading north by mistake. I looked at the compass, it read due south. Impossible, I thought. Land should always be to the left of us, on our port-side.
     I kicked Eric awake and yelled below to wake the others. The wind was almost easterly and we were in imminent danger of being blown straight on to the reef.
     I managed to turn the boat into the wind, but it was of little use. Eric struggled with the sail, which flapped wildly as we pitched and yawed.
Sam and Jim scrambled to fix up the oars and were frantically pulling like demented donkeys to get some distance between the breakers and us, but we were not making any headway.
     All eyes were permanently fixed on the reef and our impending doom; we were being dragged closer and closer to the huge breakers. We were weak from exhaustion and fear. ‘God help us! What to do!’
Similar to Indian Navel Patrol boat 'Saffeena'
     Then, like some great benefaction from heaven, a calm but surreal voice came over a loud tannoy.
     ‘Ahoy there, would you be caring for a line?’
     I thought I was imagining things, the voice might just as easily have said, ‘Come in number six, your time is up!’
     Again, the calm voice over the tannoy repeated the request.
     I looked in the direction of the voice. My God! I thought. Hell’s bells and bootlaces!
     There, not forty feet away, was a small naval patrol vessel, called the M.V. Safeena, it was pitching and rolling as it stood by to throw us a line. In the panic and noise of the crashing surf, we had not seen nor heard its approach to us.
Very similar construction to our sampan
     A young uniformed rating threw us a line; it fell short and he quickly retrieved, recoiled, and re-threw it. But again it fell short into the wildly choppy water around us. Without thinking, I leapt overboard and grabbed it; but I found I hadn't the strength to swim back to our boat.
Throw me a rope someone!
     Eric saw my difficulty and instinctively threw me one of our lines. I seized it and hung on in desperation as he hauled me and our rescuer’s tow line back aboard, it was quickly hitched up, and in seconds we were being towed out to sea away from the reef.
     Our rescuers came alongside us and introduced themselves as the Indian Navy.
     ‘Indian Navy?’ I said. ‘What is the Indian Navy doing in Malaya?’
     ‘Oh my goodness me,’ said the officer. ‘I am telling you, this is not Malaya, this is the island of Car Nicobar. You are in the middle of the Indian Ocean in Indian Territory. Sumatra is to our south, and Malaya is 800 miles east from here. Please be letting me show you on the chart.’
     We looked and saw that the island of Car Nicobar was indeed in the middle of the Indian Ocean and what is more it was the most westerly of the Andaman and Nicobar group of islands, many of which overlapped each other and which we had sailed past thinking it was the mainland of Thailand.
     No wonder it had been on our right, and no wonder we had kept losing sight of land – we were a long way off course. Had we continued on our current bearing and not come upon this island, we would have ended up a month later, starved to death in the Antarctic.
A mere 800 miles off course
     How lucky can one be? We had been without food for eleven days and down to our last few pints of rusty water. We were 800 miles off-course in a 23-foot sampan, with a dubious car compass, a torn sail, navigating with a chart which didn't even cover this part of the ocean, and about to capsize on to a reef when, out of nowhere, and to the rescue appeared not the cavalry but the Indians!
     The tale of our life on the island of Car Nicobar and eventual rescue will have to wait until next time. To be continued in story No 20 …
Your Comments are always welcome
Click Here to read the first of the four episodes in this saga

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